Friday, August 31, 2007

Mosquito by Alex Lemon

Tin House Books, 2006

Reviewed by D. Antwan Stewart

Often I’ve found myself trudging through the regurgitated stylistics of a poet’s first book and thought to myself how terribly unmotivated, the lack of passion, both the poet (and the book) seems to feel about the subject matter. I cannot say the same for Alex Lemon’s powerfully explosive (if not implosive) verse in Mosquito. This poet renders the experience of the human body at its most physically and psychologically ravaging. These are poems that invoke the carnal with the sacred, the droll with the elegiac. And like the mosquito that portends the book’s title, these poems remain welts, stings, and constant scratchings at the surface to get to what lies beneath the skin. The opening poem, “Trembling,” begins: “Hello friend, beautiful face / in car fire. I, the flesh wish, / am sickly wrapped in light.” At the onset, we readers are invited into a personal space that leaves us unsettled: are we the beautiful face in car fire? And, at the poem’s end, when the speaker tells us “Tomorrow, I will be / afraid. I might never wake up,” we, too are afraid. Right? Or, at least our empathy for the speaker becomes more and more unsettling. Who is this poet—thrusting our faces into the muck of such sadness and quiet horror (remember: “beautiful face / in car fire). What poet dares to leaves us trembling (if for our worrying, then for our anticipation)?

In the four sections that comprise Mosquito, we readers will journey with Lemon through critical illness and the inevitable reconciliation one must find to cope. What we encounter are not poems rife with falsehoods, but poems that mine the many caves of emotional catastrophes, the worlds that exist after one has faced his own mortality. And what enlivens this remarkable book is the sum of these poems, as they become a whole that embodies a poet’s determination to find the perfect pitch and tenor to render language that shapes the work with passion and never with the sense the poet is self-elegizing. Lemon, in fact, achieves this with brilliant success. His poems range from the lyrically forthright, to the fractured experimental. One is never without having to investigate and reconsider, again and again, a poem’s intentions. Where one poem lingers with an acute sense of our own self-reflexivity, others compel us to tear off the scabs, allow the blood from those scars to render this experience anew, to find our place within the speaker (poet’s) world—and frequently, we may not always understand, as we feel neither has the speaker.

Furthermore, Lemon’s ordering of these poems exacts what I have aforementioned. Consider the poems “The Best Part” and “After.” The former poem begins:

      The best part of brain surgery isn’t the shining
      staples that keep it all in, the ways

      fingers and tongues will find the scar.
      It’s not wheelchair rides through maple leaves,

      sunlight warming a bruise as I fumble
      peeling an orange. Nor is it the gentle tug

      of a nurse reminding muscles—bend, stretch
      and flex. The sweetest ingredient—

      the best part is the cutting.

Now, reading across the page, to the latter poem, Lemon writes:


      Open my mouth & watch the mouse-trapped shake,
            the maggot-house-meat

                                                      splayed before dogs—I am

            that scab

      peeled from the butcher’s midnight eyes.

                                                      Persistent scalpel—I will thorn soft
      these ill-illuminated pleasures.

                                                      The mouth whips. The mouth
                                                      whips itself clean with wind.

What wonderful juxtapositions these poems make. Essentially, Lemon writes that the best part of brain surgery is in the cutting—the medicinal act, the thing that endeavors to make things better. Consider, also, the language. It is lyrical and images are detailed as they are needed. No superfluous rhapsodizing or romanticizing, but the poet’s deft hand at work. It is simple. It’s honest. Yet, once we move across the page, to “After,” the language implodes. “Open my mouth,” the speaker implores, and what we see within this dark, gaping maw, is a horrific scene reminiscent of death. The language turns suddenly symbolic. In fact, it is a barrage of symbols, the poet implicating that this experience is not easily rendered into a comprehensible or literal language. And much like the way the speaker might feel coming out of surgery, so must we make our way around the anesthesia of language. It is numbing, yes, but also a numbness we desperately try to return feeling to. In other words, the mosquito has bitten, and we scratch and scratch even when the act only exacerbates the itchiness. This is the feeling one feels struggling to ground himself in a world post-surgery, where haze and confusion becomes mimicked by our inarticulate-ness.

Readers will discover that the structure of Mosquito operates in much the same way as what I’ve described above. Of course, Lemon is too good a poet to allow the metronome to tick back and forth at the same regular pace. The book, also, is too intelligent for that. One will read poems of erotic love, of memories one has preserved post-op, of simply being alive when one certainly could have died from the experience, of the possibility that one very well might. And though these poems are either suggested or forthright, they are never pedestrian. Lemon’s passion and vulnerability will strip bare your conscience. There will be only scars remaining where doubt used to be—in places you never thought there would exist an experience so wrought yet so tenderly evoked that you’d be sure as hell it was yours.


Alex Lemon's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous magazines including Tin House, Denver Quarterly, AGNI, Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Pleiades, Post Road, Swink, and Washington Square. His translations (with Wang Ping) of a number of contemporary Chinese poets are forthcoming in Tin House, New American Writing and other journals. Among his awards is a 2005 Literature Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. Alex is a frequent contributor to the Bloomsbury Review. Currently, he teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.


D. Antwan Stewart is a graduate of the M.F.A. in Writing Program at the Michener Center for Writers, where he was a James A. Michener Fellow in poetry. He is the author of a chapbook, The Terribly Beautiful (Main Street Rag Press, 2006), and has other poems and reviews appearing or forthcoming in Meridian, the Seattle Review, Bloom, Lodestar Quarterly, storySouth, Poet Lore, can we have our ball back?, New Millennium Writings, DIAGRAM, 42opus, CutBank Poetry, The Lambda Book Report, and others.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Now Available: CutBank 67: Spring 2007

for Patricia Goedicke (1931-2006)

fiction by Danielle Dutton, Leslie Jamison, Edan Lepucki, Charles McLeod, Daniel Mueller and Matthew Ira Swaye

poetry by Seth Abramson, Kismet Al-Hussaini, Hannah Andrews, Brent Armendinger, William S. Barnes, Erin M. Bertram, Jennifer K. Dick, Julie Doxsee, Patricia Goedicke, Nathan Hoks, Karyna McGlynn, Carey McHugh, Sandra Miller, Jennifer Pilch, Robb St. Lawrence, Morgan Lucas Schuldt and Matt Shears

art by Louisa Conrad

interview with Aimee Bender

featuring critical reviews: Nabil Kashyap on Inger Christensen, Greg Hill Jr. on Michael Earl Craig, Lucas Farrell on Matt Hart, Trina Burke on Laura Mullen, Heather Sweeney on Elizabeth Treadwell, and Rachel Moritz on three books by Phylum Press.

with a letter to Patricia Goedicke, by Sarah Gridley

Copies are available for USD $10.00, both online or by mail order. Checks can be made payable to “CutBank” and sent to: CutBank, Attn: Poetry 67 Order, Department of English, University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59812.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Broken World by Joseph Lease

Coffee House Press, 2007

Reviewed by Michael Sikkema

With his books Human Rights, and the latest Broken World, Joseph Lease has created a body of work which is wholly innovative and musically alive. Perhaps more than any other poet writing now, Lease explores the Lyric “I” as a place of conflict, confusion, exploration, and contradiction. Lease uses the Lyric “I” not as a comfortable stance but as a tool with which to explore and interrogate Lyric boundaries.

Lines like “I remember that night, or / that night,” form interesting tensions next to “the I feels grateful for its bagel, grateful for its espresso- now try it this way: the I lives in an empire––community of headlines.” In Broken World, it is by writing into and against subjectivity, it is by fracturing the Lyric that Lease reinvents it and addresses all the other fractures in the book’s title.

“We breathe our eyes, promise the / wind, boxes of shit, pieces of glass–– / Color the wind, we breathe our yes, / open the doors, one vote one corpse––/ One seed of light–“ Lease writes. The scraps of silence are a part of, not apart from, the music while gaps are a necessary part of the meaning. Lease writes “What is our country. Did it start as blank, as blank blank, as blank blank blank.” The search for, the making of, and the questioning of meaning which Lease undergoes in this book replaces the presentation of meaning often associated with Lyric poetry.

Formally crafted as well as spontaneous and surprising, image-driven and rhetorically sophisticated, Broken World speaks clearly to our contemporary aesthetic and historical conditions. That is to say, it’s the book that we need right now, and won’t stop needing anytime soon. “Why don’t people / tell the truth––you scare people––genocide and / how the rich got rich––even a bus shines differently in light” Lease writes.

Removing the fourth wall which separates the Lyric from history, Lease takes on huge subjects like the AIDS crisis, the Holocaust, and the environmental and mental degradation of capitalism in the only way a poet successfully can; like Blake, Lease finds evidence of these sprawling topics in small and specific instances, as in "Free Again": “my handwriting, stories, Paul / Celan, phrases - / on the back of / a receipt”. In a single image Lease packs an intense constellation of facts and questions.

Is it more important that the poetry is on the flip side of the receipt, or that it’s literally of a piece with it? Exactly. These two facts co-exist and this is what seems to be the point. Poetry as active resistance exists only in the context of what it’s resisting, just as the most disjunctive syntax of a poet like Celan is always in the relief of the “standard” syntax and underlying power structure against which it acts. Lease doesn’t give us this argument; he gives us an image that embodies it.

In “Free Again” and throughout Broken World, Lease’s images make us see with projector speed and detail. In the amazing poem, “The History of our Death,” Lease juxtaposes a page from a Holocaust journal with natural images of a shoreline. The journal page begins the poem as bald historical fact and sets up a context of dehumanization, captivity, and witness. The speaker of the poem, and so the reader, literally see the natural images and the History being dealt with through each other.

Algae forms on clams and mussels to turn the shoreline into a Chagall canvass. “Mussels” and “wetness” carry muscles and witness. The “rounded hinge” inside a clam shell “looks like a bone inside a human ear” and the eye is led to the “holes where the face once was.” These images spill through each other in terrible union as social and historical facts underlie each natural thing seen. Too young to have died in or lived through the Holocaust, Lease is old enough to be personally involved in its aftermath.

“I read documents” Lease writes and the effect of this powerful poem is that the reader reads documents alongside him. Scraps of these documents (“Jew slave / “subhuman” / “person without dignity”) float through “the winter light” and water like a surreal transparency. The history with which Lease deals is very much present in the landscape around him and shapes his perception even as he shapes ours with densely packed images.

In his essay “Semblance,” Charles Bernstein argues that in field poetics “rather than having a single form or shape or idea pop out as you read, the structure itself is pulled into a moebius-like twisting momentum” and I argue that this is especially true of Lease’s Broken World. Lease isn’t a one trick pony; yes, Lease’s images are stunning in their intelligence but Lease’s version of the Lyric also opens to include prose blocks, juxtapositions of metered and free verse, riffs on lines by Stevens, Williams, Burroughs, Rimbaud, and many others, quotations from historical documents, critical texts, and memoirs, a Romantic sense of the pastoral as well as an ironic sense of that mode’s shortcomings. The borders of individual poems are destroyed as a two beat cadence appears and reappears alongside phrases and lines which also echo and chime throughout different poems.

The result of all this is a beautiful book, not a group of poems related by their binding alone. A master of rich, arresting images, beautiful cadences, and an architect of formal beauty and experimentation, Lease gives us Broken World, an entirely necessary book.


Joseph Lease is the author of two critically acclaimed collections of poetry: Human Rights and The Room. His poems have also been featured on NPR and published in The AGNI 30th Anniversary Poetry Anthology, VQR, Bay Poetics, Paris Review, and elsewhere. Originally from Chicago, Lease lives in Oakland, California and chairs the MFA Program in Writing at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.


Michael Sikkema was born in rural Michigan and has lived in The Netherlands, San Francisco Bay area, and now resides in Bufallo, NY. His poems have
appeared in the tiny, Zafusy, Xantippe, Word for Word, Parthenon West Review, Mirage #4 Period(ical), Shampoo, Fourteen Hills, Bombay Gin, New American Writing, Temenos, and work is forthcoming from BlazeVOX and Seconds. His chapbook Code Over Code appeared recently from Lame House Press.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Celebrity Vessels in Sueyeun Juliette Lee's Perfect Villagers

Octopus Books, 2006

Reviewed by Jessica Bozek

The six poems in Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s chapbook Perfect Villagers, one of the recently published Octopus eight, are very much concerned with “catalog[ing] the discrepancies”—between internal difference and external likeness, between human reality and political delusion, between the writer and the celebrity.

Margaret Cho is the addressee in two fan-letter style poems entitled “Dear Margaret Cho.” The speaker in both poems is concerned to draw attention to her own superficial similarities to Cho: “I too think woo lae ok is really petrified of its own fish” and “we aren’t differentiable with bangs and hooded lids.” But, she knows, “the likeness doesn’t stop there.” Their “shared” cultural heritage works as a joke in the first poem:

korea might be gay but I do not think you are.
korea is a peninsula. you and I are people, meaning that we have hair we comb and things to look at. our lips pout and take on the fullness of an adopted meaning.

What could these two women possibly have in common apart from their positioning in a stereotyped prospect by other people? Lee suggests that their real point of connection is “on the inside … without curves and artificial spaces, many of them not gay or korea.” In fact, in the second Cho poem, the speaker dreams she climbs into Cho’s belly:

… punched inside you laughed and laughed,
converting persimmons into a freedom jelly.
slathered all over, I found us both exuberant,
happy to swing or go both ways.

What enables such a release for the speaker is a role reversal (the speaker, who in the first poem laughs “inside,” here provokes the funnier, flashier Cho’s laughter) borne of intimacy. Both Cho and her letter-writing fan use words: “these are our secrets. our punch lines and couplets.” By the second letter, though, the speaker is fully comfortable with her preference for quiet words and inside spaces, and so succeeds in paying homage to Cho in the most fitting manner she can dream.
Aptly, the shortest poem in the book, “Daniel Dae Kim,” a nine-line tribute to the Korean-American actor of Lost fame and who was People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2005, offers some of Lee’s most gorgeous writing:

aren’t we of beautiful tangents
beautiful ox blood, black sand
morning from small wire filigree, a gesture

The poem articulates a subtle but unmistakably privileged sense of the bicultured being, as one who exists in a liminal space receptive to bleedings into and over. Kim embraces his position at the cultural crossroads, such that his “perfect symmetry” is “electric, transmitted from the foreground into appropriate weather.” Inside and outside come together as a multicultural success story that just might serve as subversive model. At the very least, Daniel Dae Kim is innocuous and as such an antidote to the other real-life Kim Lee devotes a poem to.

In “Kim Jong II: A Reader” Lee collages details from the North Korean leader’s “official” biography, dicta by the Kim regime, life lessons, false aphorisms, and a much qualified record of the people’s experiences in an “‘isolated but not uninformed’” country. The myths surrounding Kim, that his rise to power was allegedly “heralded by a bright star and double rainbows” at birth and that he has “good fortune in love” and is “a lady’s man,” are cold comfort for his citizens, denied “necessary articles; necessaries. necessities. / daily necessaries; the necessities of life.” Hunger is the undeniable internal marker of involuntary human sacrifice for external political delusion; citizens are left to “suck on our fingers to kill the hunger pains” as a result of “a crippling famine.” Such recourse floats detached at the bottom of a page that begins ominously, “You may have received letters from your relatives living here about the food shortage. / The situation is not as bad as it may appear.” More effective than the busy surface of “Kim Jong II: A Reader,” with its italics, quotations, double parentheticals, brackets, and lists, is the impossibility of attribution—readers cannot be sure of the origin or voice, and sometimes even subject, of a given fragment. Lee effectively mirrors the political evasions of responsibility that have been a hallmark of the Bush administration and which have certainly led to the birth of a triumvirate, “Iran, Iraq and North Korea / a new bond of brotherhood / in the mouth of the American president.” When we reach the poem’s final quotation, “‘his brinksmanship does work,’” we wonder which leader Lee is referring to. So, what is a citizen to do?

Lee finds inspiration in the figures of Bruce Lee, circa Enter the Dragon, and Toshiro Mifune, the Japanese actor who starred in such Kurosawa films as Yojimbo and Rashomon. Early in “Toshiro Mifune,” the book’s final poem, Lee’s speaker expresses a lapse in confidence: “Many of my minutes are worth so few of yours or / the incompleteness of this dance calls you forth from the dead.” Yet, by virtue of her access to Mifune through film only, she is able to exact a certain degree of power over him: “you are where I have left you / every moment that I leave you.” In contrast to such control, Lee offers mythological variations on female powerlessness:

know this: the youngest daughter never deigns to take up her father’s sword; she drowns for fifty bags of rice, reincarnates inside a lotus in the king’s royal garden. or takes up a lover and refuses to say his name. or survives a mad prince to become a dowager, or loses her heavenly garments by the mountain pool. she does not take up torch, bow, horn, hook, spear, drum, or horse. never maverick but martyr.

          my sister wears a face and sighs
                    my brother wears a face and sings

Thus, Lee acknowledges the necessity of confrontation, of bucking tradition in old movies and contemporary life, particularly when the possibilities for external performance have such divergent internal ends.

Change, particularly in “Enter the Dragon,” seems most possible as an internal dream. The poem champions distinction despite its insistence on perfunctory physical likeness. The figures in “Enter the Dragon” have been “chased into the ghetto, the factory, the warehouse” and comprise a crowd, “categorical only in its lack of a tonal key.” But, we learn, “explosions can be implicit, silent, constructed out of a hundred thousand water-based powders. there are nuances, grievings…” The poem concludes with the potential for a triumph of the oppressed; once “the will is fireproof, / engulfed in a liquid shroud,” “we rise without repenting, stand tersely for the cue.”

Throughout Perfect Villagers Lee debunks the myth of “ten thousand perfect villagers / ten thousand perfect kites” by stopping short of convenient equation and by looking past similarity to difference. The result is a deeply political book whose argument for hybridity is supported, stunningly, by historical example.


Sueyeun Juliette Lee grew up 3 miles from the CIA. She edits Corollary Press and lives in Philadelphia. Her chapbook Trespass Slightly In is out on Coconut.


Jessica Bozek just received her MFA from the University of Georgia and has poems in the newest issues of Apocryphal Text, Columbia Poetry Review, Dusie, GlitterPony, and Gulf Coast. This summer she is in Massachusetts watching the sailboats pass.